Open Data

DATA Act deadline signals need for upgrades

Shutterstock image (by R.T. Wohlstadter): blue binary tunnel, fractal illustration. 

While most CFO Act agencies expect to hit the May deadline of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, some warn that systems and accounting practices alike must be upgraded in order to fully comply and provide the accurate, financial information the Data Act demands.

The Data Act, an open-government law passed in 2014, requires the covered agencies to report their annual federal spending in a standardized, machine readable way to the USASpending.gov website. It's goal is to make $3.7 trillion in yearly federal spending more transparent. The act puts the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget in charge of overseeing agency compliance.

Matthew Roper, the deputy director of the Department of Justice's Management Division, said at a Jan. 13 Association of Government Accountants event that he was "confident" his department would hit the May deadline, but he conceded Justice was "definitely the tortoise, not the hare" in terms of the first submission.

The May deadline is "not a finish line in any stretch," he said, and pointed to limitations posed by legacy systems.

For long-term compliance, Roper said Justice will "absolutely" require a "multi-year effort" that entails "considerable system changes over time," including developing new tools and moving off of legacy systems entirely to achieve full compliance with the DATA Act.

Roper also said the law compelled Justice to reexamine past accounting practices, and he expects reporting imperfections due to the need to estimate, rather than the ability to point to exact figures.

"There's some information that simply does not exist in those legacy systems today," he said, "and even where the ability exists within the system to capture the information, we have to look at the business processes in our organization to determine the will to capture that at the transactional level each and every time"."

As a result of these inconsistent business processes, Justice will lack financial data "at a granular enough level for the DATA Act" for at least the near future, Roper said.

"We really haven't yet scratched the surface in terms of all of the business process changes that are going to be necessary across our organization to continue to refine the quality of the data," he said.

Problems with financial data have an impact beyond the implementation of the Data Act.

'The Government Accountability Office announced Jan. 12 that it was unable to provide an opinion on the federal government's annual audit due to the 'inability to account for and report much of its financial information. GAO also reported that the value of the government's improper payments exceeded $144 billion, a rise from last year's $137 billion.

"GAO's latest audit report on the consolidated financial statements underscores how much more has to be done to provide policymakers with reliable financial and performance data—information that is crucial for the difficult spending decisions that lie ahead," said GAO head and Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

Justice is not alone in having to reconcile past practices and legacy systems with the standardized financial reporting the DATA Act mandates.

Tyson Whitney, who directs the Department of Agriculture's Transparency and Accountability Reporting Division, said his agency "is facing virtually all the same challenges."

Whitney said "most of the data is already pretty close to something we already do," and that he expects his agency will also hit the deadline, but with an "asterisk." Specifically, he said that Agriculture "may have challenges reporting certain programs," and will be implementing systems changes over the next two years.

Renata Maziarz, a senior policy analyst at Treasury, told FCW that as a result of these expected imperfections, "we want to be transparent to the user about what data is missing, or what issues there may be."

Maziarz said that Treasury is "looking forward past May" to determine what agencies' successful adoption of the act will look like.

"I think some of those things include their ability to respond to public feedback and public questions," she said. "Agencies that are building a process to be able to respond to stakeholder feedback" and "have a plan to use the data" will be the most successful and beneficial, both to the public and to themselves.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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